Disclaimer: I think by this point most of this story belongs to me, but the idea came from Disney so they have to be acknowledged…for the final time.
The scene before them was one of utter chaos. It took a few moments for Lizzie to sort out exactly what seemed to be going on: though there were guns being fired off everywhere in the sea of Union blue uniforms in front of the plantation, every shot was going harmlessly into the air. No one was fighting; in fact, the men seemed to be in the midst of some enormous giddy celebration. They were laughing and cheering and shouting. Everyone was smiling, even those who looked as if they had never allowed themselves a smile in their lives. Some of the men were even embracing, clapping one another delightedly on the back as they did so. No one took any notice of the small group of people peering out of one of the plantation house's curtained windows, staring at all the commotion. Since there seemed to be no danger, the group made its way to the front door and went to stand on the veranda.
"What in Heaven's name is going on?" Lizzie shouted over the noise. None of the men so much as glanced at her.
Lilah slipped herself out from under one of Lizzie's arms and vanished into the crowd for a few minutes. When she emerged, she bore a smile as large as any of the Union men behind her.
"The war be over," she said.
Lizzie's heart leaped. "Truly? The war's over at last?"
"Tha's what they're all sayin'. They say a messenger come t'tell 'em Genr'l Lee surrendered t'Genr'l Grant jus' days ago, praise duh Lor' Almighty."
"Thanks be to God," Lizzie and Colman said at the same time. They grinned tiredly at each other. All of them stood and watched the celebration for a few minutes more, soon to be joined by most of the rest of the household slaves. No one seemed to be able to quite take it in, that after so long the war was at last over, the North victorious.
Lizzie looked around at the slaves. "Do you know what this means? For you?"
"I know whatchoo thinkin'. But we done been freed already, Miz Lizzie," answered Josiah, with a look at Colman like an affectionate grandfather.
Lizzie looked at Colman with wonder in her eyes. He stared at the ground. "It was the least I could do," he mumbled. "And you were right. They didn't leave." If she'd had the strength, she would have hugged him, but she could not bring her tired muscles to do more than stare out over the crowd of celebrating men, and hope that this meant the best for Robert, too.
When the men began to drift away to their tents, no doubt to write jubilant letters to inform their families that they would be soon be home, Colman looked around at the assembled group on the porch. "Well, friends, much as I would love to observe the celebrations, I think if I stay here a minute more the odds are good I will fall over and embarrass us all. Would a few of you be good enough to help Miss Lizzie and me to our rooms?"
Within moments Lizzie was swept up into someone's strong arms, suspecting that they belonged to John but past caring so long as she didn't have to move, or think. She felt the gentle bumping that meant they were ascending to the second floor. Her head touched something soft, and then she knew nothing but blissful sleep.
When she awoke, she remained still with her eyes closed, simply enjoying the sensation of lying on a comfortable mattress again. Slowly she pushed herself upright and opened her eyes. Her room was just as she remembered it: spacious and grand and inviting. She started to get out of bed and winced. Despite the comfort of her night's sleep—or had it only been a night?—she was badly stiff from her strenuous days of riding. Her shoulder ached, but the pain was nowhere near as bad as it had once been. Peering to her left, Lizzie saw that the hurt shoulder had been re-dressed with clean white bandages while she slept. Her various scrapes and bruises were in differing states of recovery. She sighed. Healing from the adventures of that eventful night would take some time.
The door to her room creaked cautiously open. Lilah put her head in, and smiled when she saw Lizzie sitting on the edge of her bed. "So there you is, Miz Lizzie. We wuz startin' to worry 'bout you!"
Lizzie smiled. "I'm all right, thanks to you. How long was I asleep?"
"Two full days. Massah Colman's sleepin' still."
Lizzie tried not to show her disappointment. There were so many things she wanted to talk to him about.
"Donchoo worry. He should be wakin' up soon," Lilah said, having read the expression on Lizzie's face easily. Bustling about in her usual style, the older woman assisted Lizzie in dressing, then gave in to her insistence on eating breakfast in Colman's room.
Lizzie hesitated at the door to the room at the end of the hall. She had never been in this room; she had learned very early on in her stay that the door always remained locked. That had not presented a problem for Colman, of course, but it was a sharp deterrent to everyone else. Now, the door was cracked, ever so slightly.
"Did you have to pick the lock to get inside?" she whispered to Lilah.
"Naw. He remembered righ' where the key was hidden," Lilah whispered back. She pushed the door open wider for Lizzie to step inside.
"Wasn't it filthy, what with no one being allowed inside for years?" Lizzie asked, still hesitating.
"Sure, but we cleaned it out good. Now, d'you want tuh go in or no?" At this, Lizzie had no choice. She went in.
The room had clearly once been the master bedroom of the house; it had the look of being designed for two people instead of one. It was elegant and somber, full of dark polished woods and richly embroidered draperies. At the far end, set between two tall windows, was a curtained four-poster double bed. All of the curtains were drawn back and neatly tied with cords so that the single figure asleep in the bed was visible.
Lizzie swallowed down some nerves, feeling as if she were intruding into some private sanctuary. But she had insisted on coming here, and it was too late to back down now. She pulled up an upholstered chair beside the bed. Lilah reappeared a few moments later with breakfast, which was laid out on the nightstand. When she was finished, Lilah whisked the tray away again, leaving her alone with the sleeping Colman.
Lizzie watched him for a few minutes, just content to know that he was breathing steadily in and out. His face, from what she could see of it, was slightly thinner, and he had dark circles under his eyes. He also had a few days' growth of whiskers on his chin, another odd thing that she had to remind herself not to stare at. With the breaking of the curse, gone was the sense of being trapped in time that had once emanated from his whole being. She thought suddenly: He can shave again, get his hair cut, pick up books, change clothes, run into things, eat and drink, and a thousand other things that he couldn't before…he can even kiss me. She looked up dreamily into the bed's canopy, reliving the sensation of his lips on hers.
There was a light touch on her hand, and a tingle ran up her spine. She looked down into Colman's dark eyes.
"You're awake," she said with a smile. "How do you feel?"
"Battered," he croaked. He cleared his throat. "How long?"
"According to Lilah, two days. I just got up myself a little while ago." He tried push himself into a sitting position and winced, just as she had. Lizzie pressed him back down. "Stay there. I'll tell Lilah you've woken and have her fetch you some breakfast."
Once she had done so and settled back into the chair beside him, he reached out and took her hand, brushing the knuckles lightly with a kiss. She didn't pull back or object, so he settled their twined hands back onto the bed's coverlet. After a moment, he sighed. "I suppose you want an explanation."
"For what?" she asked, startled. "Your substantiality? You already explained that. The curse on you broke when I realized that I was in love with you. It stands to reason that you went back into your true body on the bier when that happened, which is how you ended up behind me in time to pull me out of the path of the bullet."
He blinked. "That saves some of what I was going to say. I was also going to tell you about…afterwards. The woman who healed me—"
"You know of her? I thought you were…gone…when she arrived."
"That's all a bit muddled in my head. I remember her being there, and asking me about you. It was dark, terribly dark. You took my hand, and she did something…" he gestured with his free hand towards his wounds. "That part isn't so clear. And then I was waking up, as if from a nightmare."
Lizzie looked at the coverlet to hide the glimmer of tears.
He noticed, and wiped them away with his thumb. "No need to cry. It's over, and I'm here." He leaned back. "How often in the past I wanted to dry your tears, and could not. It would take very little persuasion to convince me that this is in fact Heaven." There was a pause, and then he shook himself. "I did want to tell you something about that woman."
"She's the one who cursed you in the first place," Lizzie said in a low voice.
"She is. I remember that night now, only too clearly. Please don't ask me for details: not yet. I may tell you someday, but at the moment the thought of who I was then only fills me with shame." She could see him swallow. "But you do need to know this. The woman in white…the one who cursed me, the one who healed me…she is also my mother."
"Your mother? How could a mother do such a cruel thing to her own child?" Thinking back, the woman had given hints as to her identity in their brief time together.
Colman was silent for a long moment. "I can only assume the dead see things in a different light than the living. And I am grateful to her. Without her, without her curse, I would still be the same selfish, unfeeling man I once was." His eyes caught hers and held them. "And I would never have met you."
She was still kissing him when Lilah walked in with Colman's breakfast tray. The elderly woman, master that she was at concealing her emotions, kept her face blank as slate. She did wink at Lizzie once before departing, but that was all the hint she gave that she'd seen anything out of the ordinary. Lizzie shook her head fondly after she left. "I don't think anything could blindside that woman. She'd take an earthquake in stride and not bat an eyelash."
Colman didn't answer; after a moment of silence Lizzie turned to look at him. He was staring at the tray of food on his lap with an expression akin to awe.
"What's the matter? Did you forget how to eat?" she teased.
"No, it isn't that, but I'm pleased to hear you have such a high opinion of my memory. It's just that this will be the first meal I've ever been able to eat in over five years. I want to savor the moment."
There was nothing Lizzie could say to that. She let him eat in peace without pestering him to talk around his food. He didn't eat much, but she could tell from the expression on his face that he was thoroughly enjoying himself. When he finally pushed the tray away, Lizzie picked it up and made for the door. "I'll leave you alone to make yourself decent," she said when he opened his mouth to protest. "I'll be in the library when you're ready." She left.
Her first stop was to the kitchen, to deposit the tray. There she learned that the soldiers in camp were getting uneasy without their commander, and that Captain Redgrave himself, who had been placed on a cot near the kitchen fire, had not yet woken or even stirred. The fool had not thought to bring anything close to a trained healer with him; apparently he had not expected enough opposition that any of his men might be injured. Lizzie took this news to the library to ponder, while she sat with an open book in her lap. She was still sitting that way an hour later when Colman found her.
Her first indication of his presence was a muffled thump at the door, followed by a noise that sounded like a stifled curse.
"Try the handle," she called sweetly.
The handle turned and Colman entered, glaring at her. "Very amusing." It was strange to see him in anything other than his cream shirt and dark slacks and boots. Now he wore brown leather shoes, a different pair of slacks, and a shirt dyed a deep blue that brought out the violet in his eyes. He had shaved, which made him look slightly more like his old self, though Lizzie noted a few spots that might have been nicks born of an out-of-practice hand.
She smiled at the picture he made. "You look very dashing."
He posed heroically for her for a few seconds, then sobered. "We need to make several quick decisions. The servants have just informed me that Captain Redgrave has expired."
"He was still unconscious not an hour ago," Lizzie exclaimed, leaping to her feet. "Have the soldiers been told?"
"They have not. Apparently he took a turn for the worse just before I came downstairs. What do you think we should do about this?"
Lizzie thought hard. At last, she said, "We should tell the soldiers as soon as possible. Whoever replaces him as commander might be more open to reason, especially now that the war is over. The men will be wanting to return to camp."
"That is what I'd hoped you'd say." He folded his arms. "What do you want to tell them happened to him? If we say the wrong thing, we could all end up under arrest."
"I hate to lie, especially since it was I who delivered the blow, but you're right. It will cause far more trouble than it's worth to tell the truth. Blast the scoundrel! He's still causing grief even after he's dead." She racked her brains. "Tell them he took a bad fall down the cellar ladder while searching the house. It's close enough to the truth, and likely in the dark. And it isn't as if we didn't do all in our power. We certainly didn't leave him down there to die alone. It's his own fault he didn't see fit to bring a physician. Lilah is an amazing woman with herbs, but she's not a magic-worker or a surgeon."
"Very true. All right, it can't hurt. Come, let's get this over with." He held out an arm to her, then hesitated. "Will you be going back with the soldiers, should they decide to leave? I know you have your brother to care for."
Lizzie blinked. "If that is the case, then I will go back with them. But not permanently. I won't lose you again, and here is as good a place as any for Robert to recover."
"What if he refuses to come? I doubt he's forgotten his last ordeal here."
"I'll convince him. I don't know what on earth I'd say, but somehow I'll do it."
"Perhaps it might help if…if you told him he has no choice if he wishes to witness his sister's wedding?"
"What?" Lizzie stared as Colman went down on one knee before her. Then her brain caught up with her, and she began to smile. "You are quite the sly thing, Colman Whisper. I'll have my hands full keeping you in line."
"You have your work cut out for you there." He winked, then smoothed his face out. "Elizabeth Bellevue, I love you more than anything. Will you make me the happiest of men and become my bride?"
She managed to keep her own face solemn for only a second, in time to say her own part of the ritual. "Of course I will. I'm surprised you even need ask." He stood, and they shared a brief kiss.
"Propriety, you know. And what would you have done if I'd prepared a wedding while you were gone and not at least asked you first?" He offered his arm again, and she took it.
"I'd have slapped you, for starters. Now that I can." She pinched his arm, lightly.
He gave her a wounded look, which just made her laugh. Arm in arm, they left the room.
"And did they get married?" This question was part of the ritual, something the girl had asked every time the story was told since she was old enough to form the sentence.
"They did marry, after she went and fetched her brother, as promised," her father answered, completing his part in the ritual. "Their wedding was the first formal event in years, and marked a beginning of rebuilding and reconciliation for the entire area after the war. Her brother recovered from his starvation, eventually moving back to Pennsylvania. He took up his printing business, and married a girl from their hometown. But they always exchanged many quantities of letters and occasional visits. Thus the years passed peacefully for them all."
"And did they live happily ever after? Colman and Lizzie?"
Her father smiled. "I believe they did. They had their disagreements, just as they did before, but they always were able to sort out their differences with little harm to both sides. Eventually they had children, who were their great pride and joy, though sometimes caused them no little amount of exasperation. And now it's time you went to sleep, or your mother will be coming after me for keeping you awake when you need your rest."
"All right, Papa. Good night." She yawned widely and turned on her side, pulling the covers up to her chin and closing her eyes peacefully.
"Good night, dear one. Sleep well." He waited until he was certain she was sound asleep, then kissed her gently on the cheek. After stroking one curl gently with a finger, he made his way downstairs.
His wife waited for him before a warm fire, their infant son in her arms. She slid over to make room on the couch for her husband, taking care not to wake the sleeping child. "What was the story tonight?" she asked him as he settled beside her.
"The same story I tell every night," he replied with a kiss for the baby and then for her. "Ours."
Author's Note: Ta-da! I had one last surprise up my sleeve for you faithful readers. This is really the end. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it.
History Note: By the time the Civil War was over on April 9th 1865, General Sherman's troops had moved all the way to Raleigh, North Carolina after devastating the Carolina coast. I decided to ignore this fact and imagine that they camped on the coast of Georgia for the remainder of the war for the sake of simplicity. I also chose not to mention Lincoln's assassination by John Wilkes Booth a few days after the war ended because I thought it would add a sour note to an otherwise satisfactory ending. I hope the readership doesn't mind. I did my best under the circumstances, and have tried to be as accurate as possible whenever possible. If I changed something big, I tried to let you know.
Acknowledgements! Songs (aka my snazzy chapter titles):
1. The Bonnie Blue Flag (Chapters 1 & 10)
2. Battle Hymn of the Republic (Chapters 2, 7, 8, 9, 19 & 22)
3. Marching Through Georgia (Chapter 3)
4. Riding a Raid (Chapter 4)
5. Dixie Land (Chapters 5 & 6)
6. Old Abe Lincoln Came Out of the Wilderness (Chapter 11)
7. We Are Marching on to Richmond (Chapter 12)
8. The Southern Wagon (Chapter 13)
9. Oh Freedom (Chapter 14)
10. Go Down Moses (Chapter 15)
11. Aura Lee (Chapter 16)
12. When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again (Chapters 17 and 21)
13. Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (Chapter 18)
14. The Last Fierce Charge (Chapter 20)
Cywyllog (and Mordred): What can I say? Best roommate(s) ever. They previewed almost every chapter and told me what was and wasn't working.
All My Reviewers, for any and all chapters: EmeraldShine, ZOey89, NordyGirl, Stahlut, Liliane, teardrop456, Market Square Heroes, Jewel-Gurl73, bellamegs, El Corazon Sangriento, brunette-barbie14, Erisah Mae, Earthia, QueenIsuralia, Xeven, vixon I, Blue Cloud Eyes, glennie, sueariel, tigersmeleth, Tami, BookRose, gigglen, Lildevilatspoiledrottenbb, Tonyboy, Kayasuri-n, arieslilie, aureusangel, and emeraldoni. You are all great!!! Some of you carried over from Nightingale, and some of you joined along the way, but thanks to all of you. For those who stuck through all the way to the end, congratulations and an artillery salute. You are the best of the best.
To all you silent readers out there who didn't review: Thanks for reading, even though I didn't get to know you. Hope you at least thought it was worth your time. If it was, and you don't chose to tell me, I'm still honored.
The Pennsylvania College Guard: My reenacting unit. Most of what I know about the Civil War, camp life, and civilian life in general has been gleaned from my hours with them. Though they will probably never read this, I must acknowledge that I could never have done it without them, especially Dave, Nancy and Skye (Military Commander, Civilian Coordinator, and Historian, respectively).
I have no idea where to go from here. If I get hit with a bolt of inspiration I may start writing a new story, but who knows when that will happen. The muse strikes where she pleases. The possibility of a joint story with another author has been put forward. In the meantime, check out my other work on fanfiction and fictionpress.
Over and out (again),